BUFFALO — Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov said he was told by the Lightning when he signed a one-year deal July 1 that there might be times he'd have to step aside for touted prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Nabokov was okay with it. But now he's living it.
Tuesday the Lightning recalled Vasilevskiy, 20, who could start tonight against the Sabres in Buffalo. Vasilevskiy isn't expected to stay beyond tonight, and isn't taking anyone's job, Cooper said.
But with the team erring on the side of caution with starter Ben Bishop, who recently missed four games with a lower-body injury, and AHL Syracuse a short drive away, the circumstances aligned for Vasilevskiy to potentially get another NHL game.
Vasilevskiy started three of the four games in relief of Bishop the past couple weeks, with Nabokov's last game Dec. 19. Nabokov understands the situation, but admits it's difficult to take.
"I know it's a look in the future," Nabokov said. "It's way beyond this circumstance. Still, you prepare, and you nurture, and you have to do those things. You've got to do it the right way, and I think (the Lightning) did it the right way."
Coach Jon Cooper said Vasilevskiy has "earned it" by going 2-1 with a 2.01 goals against average in his first NHL stint. While Vasilevskiy has the potential to be a No. 1 down the road, this is just another step in the big picture of his development.
"These aren't circumstances where Vasilevskiy is coming in to take a job," Cooper said. "I guess if his play goes above and beyond, we'd have to re-evaluate. But our goal with Vasy is coming and learning the North American league game and you're learning in the exact league you should be doing it. Three-fourths of our team learned it in that league, as well as their coach, so it's proven to work.
"So for us to sit here and say, 'Well he's had a couple good starts, all of a sudden he's arrived,' I think we'd be naive to say that. Ben Bishop and Nabokov are our two goaltenders with the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's a great to have that depth we have and to able to play to that and feel comfortable about it. That's what this is all about."
Cooper had a discussion with each of the three goaltenders Tuesday, saying "there's no surprise punches with us." And Cooper made it clear this isn't a reflection on him losing any confidence in Nabokov, a 15-year veteran. "No, not in the slightest."
It has been a tough adjustment for Nabokov, who hasn't played fewer than 40 games in a season since 1999. He appeared in just nine, often starting on back ends of back to backs, when the team hasn't played well. Nabokov is 3-4-2 with a 2.84 GAA, allowing two goals or less in four of his eight starts, including the past three. Tampa Bay has scored two goals or fewer in six of his eight starts.
Nabokov calls Vasilevskiy a "great kid," saying he plans to stay positive to help him and not complicate the situation.
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"I do understand, I really do," Nabokov said. "Do I want it? Not really."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.